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The following is an excerpt from the book Secrets of the Widow's Son
by David A. Shugarts
Published by Sterling; September 2005;$17.95US/$25.95CAN; 1-4027-2819-0
Copyright 2005 David A. Shugarts

Appendix A: Symbolic Systems

The Harvard professor of "symbology" Robert Langdon is instrumental in Dan Brown's novels as he opens the reader's eyes to all the many ramifications of symbolism. Indeed, there are so many references to symbols, richly described and pasted together into word-collages, that a reader can easily become confused. On a single page, Dan Brown may refer to a Tarot symbol, a Greek symbol, an Egyptian one, and so on. Quite commonly, the obvious symbol is one matter, but its deeper, hidden meaning is the real clue for Langdon to interpret.

One of the best ways to fully appreciate Langdon's references is to break down the symbolism into its various traditions and cultures. There are actually numerous entire systems of symbolism, which I will cover broadly in this appendix. It is my aim to touch on most of the systems that Dan Brown embraces, while also exposing some little-known facts and unusual ways of looking at them.


A favorite theme of Dan Brown is the way the Christian Church so often suppressed and supplanted "pagan" beliefs while these old "pagan" beliefs continued to make themselves felt in various ways. It's a somewhat surprising extension of this idea, but hieroglyphics are a great example of this point. Also, hieroglyphics represent hidden secrets to Freemasons and many other groups as well.

It will be up to a linguist to say what is the longest-living written language, but the language of hieroglyphics surely has to be a candidate. It is long-dead now, but it lived a long time. There are hieroglyphs that have been dated to as early as 3150 BC, and they were used all the way to the end of the fourth century AD.

Originally this picture-language had practical functions, but it eventually came to be used mainly for the really big, important writing: inscriptions on the walls of great buildings, such as temples and pyramids. Two other Egyptian languages were developed in parallel, Hieratic and Demotic, which were used for documents and commerce. Later, the living Egyptian language became Coptic.

Egypt's long, glorious history of pharaohs -- and hieroglyphics -- started its decline about 2,400 years ago. The Persians conquered Egypt. Then Alexander the Great vanquished the Persians, but his empire fell apart on his death in 323 BC. So control of Egypt passed to Greeks and the dynasty of Ptolemy. Greek thought moved in and flourished, to some detriment of the Egyptian. Eventually, control was given over to the Romans.

In due course, Rome came to consider itself a Christian empire. The old Egyptian gods and symbols were declared "pagan." The Egyptian languages were outlawed and documents were destroyed, in the late fourth century.

In the blink of an eye, historically speaking, all knowledge of how to read hieroglyphics disappeared.

In the Middle Ages and centuries afterward, scholars remained interested in the hieroglyphic language, but still couldn't read it. It wasn't that the language was terribly complicated. It was because the glyphs represent phonetic sounds that had not been uttered as a spoken language for a thousand years. Revivals of the works of the Greeks were not of any help. To guess what a phonetic language sounds like, you need to be able to make the sounds.

But there's always a pseudoscholar around when you need one. Enter one legendary "scholar," Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who got such a reputation for knowledge that he was invited to Rome's prestigious Collegio Romano and eventually founded a school and museum of his own in Rome. His many studies in science and mathematics were legendary, but he was also known as the foremost Egyptologist of his era. He published a major work in 1652, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, which was widely circulated.

A lot of Kircher's work on Coptic was accurate, but he basically fooled himself and his audience into believing he could translate hieroglyphs. For example, the Egyptian text reads, "Osiris says," but Kircher translates this as, "The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature guarded by the vigilance of Anubis." You go, boy!

Kircher argued that ancient Egyptian was the language of Adam and that Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary source of Hermeticism, was actually Moses. (Later, when writing about China, he said Confucius was actually Moses and/or Hermes.) Since there was no one to contradict him, Kircher got away with this kind of thing for a long time.

Kircher collaborated in real life with another of Dan Brown's polymath geniuses, Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of the stars of Brown's A&D. Kircher helped Bernini "translate" the hieroglyphs on the obelisks that Bernini used in his Baroque recreations of Roman churches and piazzas, including advising on the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, where one of the critical murder scenes takes place in A&D.

Kircher was not the only one to pretend he had figured out hieroglyphics. Fast-forward about two centuries to the beginnings of the Mormon Church, when founder and prophet Joseph Smith told his followers that he had been given the knowledge of how to read "reformed Egyptian" and had been shown "golden plates" that contained the Book of Mormon, which he had translated.

Smith's followers constantly had to deal with critics and disbelievers. So in 1835 they warmly greeted a traveling Irishman, Michael Chandler, who drove into their town carting a load of Egyptian curiosities. For a small fee, Chandler would let you look at four genuine Egyptian mummies, as well as a number of scrolls of papyrus, with hieroglyphs on them.

In America and Europe, there was a certain flow of "culture" going on, and mummies were a part of it. The word mummy actually stems from a word for bitumen (asphalt), which was an ingredient used to wrap mummies at one time in Egyptian history (although the Egyptians actually preferred a certain resin if they could get it). In the nineteenth century, it was believed that rendering down a mummy by heating it would yield a supply of bitumen, which, at that time in America, was considered a medicine. People actually would take doses of ground-up mummy powder! Mummies began to appear in traveling shows like Chandler's and, among high society, mummies even were featured at macabre house parties where the guests would unwrap them, as curiosities.

The Mormons immediately brought the papyri to Joseph Smith, expecting that he would demonstrate that he could read them. They were not disappointed. Smith told Chandler it would take some time to fully translate the documents, but he could already make out certain symbols from memory. Chandler even wrote a kind of affidavit for the Mormons, saying he had observed that Joseph Smith could decipher the hieroglyphs. (Chandler could not possibly have known this, of course.)

The first period of "translation" was productive, and Smith got about ten pages of manuscript from the papyri, saying that the works were really the ancient Book of Abraham (upon which the book of Genesis itself was based), along with the Book of Joseph. Over the years, Smith paused and restarted the work, leaving it unfinished at his death in 1844. But the Mormons eventually declared the Smith-translated Book of Abraham to be Scripture. The original papyri were lost from sight, believed to have been destroyed in a fire.

Until 1966, that is, when a professor of Arabic studies found them in a museum vault in New York. In due course, genuine Egyptian scholars got to compare Smith's work to the real sources, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In one example, the true text says merely, "after." Smith translates this as, "But I, Abraham, and Lot, my brother's son, prayed unto the Lord, and the Lord appeared unto me and said unto me: Arise and take Lot with thee; for I have purposed to take thee away out of Haran . . ." You go, boy!

Joseph Smith had missed history by only a few short years. It was in 1799 that the Rosetta Stone was discovered, brought back to England in 1802, and the text was circulated among scholars. Progress was made by a young Englishman, Thomas Young, who published his work in 1819, but the real breakthrough was made by a Frenchman, Jean Franois Champollion, who published his work in the late 1820s, but in French, so that it is unlikely to have reached Joseph Smith in a form that he could read.

To pound home the lesson here, when accurate history isn't available, there will always be people who are willing to just invent it. People like this have left a crisscrossed trail of occult ideas and odd theories throughout history. The ideas and theories have themselves become part of history, and Dan Brown is a master at treasure-hunting these oddities and spinning them alchemically into golden fibers of his novels.

Copyright 2005 David A. Shugarts